The increasing number of Māori MPs under mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) led to debate about the relatively few Māori elected to local bodies. Until Ray Ahipene-Mercer’s election in 2000, Wellington City Council had had only one other Māori councillor, in the 1960s. In 2001 Ahipene-Mercer was reported to be one of just 20 Māori local-body politicians, out of a total of more than 1,000. In the 2007 local government elections, less than 5% of successful candidates were Māori, despite Māori forming 14% of the population.
In the 1962 local body elections, Mākere Rangiātea Love, known as Ralph, was elected to Wellington City Council. His nephew, Peter Love, was elected to Petone Borough Council. Ralph Love worked as private secretary for the MP Eruera Tirikātene, and later for Tirikātene’s daughter, MP Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan. In 1965 he became mayor of Petone. He was knighted in 1987.
Local government legislation
The Local Electoral Act 2001 provided for local bodies to create Māori wards, dedicated seats elected by those on the Māori parliamentary roll. The Local Government Act 2002 further encouraged local bodies to adopt measures ‘to recognise and respect the Crown’s responsibility to take appropriate account of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and to maintain and improve opportunities for Māori to contribute to local government decision-making processes’.
Over the following decade, however, few councils had adopted this approach and many regional and city councils had no Māori members at all. One exception was the Bay of Plenty Regional Council which, in 2004, introduced Māori seats elected by voters on the Māori electoral roll. The three Māori seats on the 13-member council roughly equated with the region’s Māori population of 27.5%. In 2013 the Waikato Regional Council introduced two Māori wards.
From 2012 several other councils, including the Far North District Council and Nelson City Council, proposed the creation of Māori wards. In all but one case, opponents used provisions of the Local Electoral Act 2001 to trigger binding referendums which overturned the councils' plans. Wairoa District Council itself initiated a poll on this issue in 2016. In 2019, Wairoa voters elected three general ward and three Māori ward councillors.
A controversial referendum was held in May 2015 in New Plymouth District, where 83% of voters (on a 45% turnout) rejected Māori wards, much to the disappointment of Mayor Andrew Judd, who had championed the issue. The controversy prompted Judd to stand down when his term expired in 2016.
The Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Act 2021 abolished local voters’ ability to overturn a council’s decision to establish a Māori ward.
Auckland super city
The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance (2009) recommended the establishment of three elected Māori seats on the new Auckland Council. Two would be for ngā mātā waka – urban Māori (80% of Auckland’s Māori population) and one for mana whenua – local Auckland tribes (20% of Auckland Māori). There were then no Māori on either Auckland City Council or Auckland Regional Council. Just 10 of 250 members of all local bodies in the area were Māori.
The National government rejected the proposal for Māori seats, but after much lobbying from Māori agreed to establish a nine-member statutory Māori advisory board. A committee comprising mana whenua nominated seven mana whenua representatives and two ngā mataa waka representatives. These were endorsed by the minister of Māori affairs and accepted by cabinet. Critics questioned the disproportion between local tribes and urban Māori. The new Māori advisory board had two representatives with voting rights on 11 of 18 council committees. This surprised those who had assumed that their role would be entirely advisory. However, other non-councillor members of committees also had voting rights.